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Less Is More

MADAME BOVARY: Life in a Country Town;\o7 By Gustave Flaubert; Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins; (Oxford University Press: 384 pp., $15)\f7

July 25, 1999|ANITA BROOKNER | Anita Brookner is the author of "Hotel du Lac," "A Private View" and "Falling Slowly." Her essay appears as the introduction to "Madame Bovary," published in a new edition by Oxford University Press

"Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" Flaubert famously exclaimed, a remark which has raised him to heroic status among writers. For what has the morose and reclusive Flaubert in common with the completely unsophisticated, even credulous Emma, on whom he lavishes such undeserved vengeance? Does this transformation imply an obscure punishment for his own romantic impulses, and if so is such an act temperamentally justified, or indeed justifiable? For to surrender one's own naivete, or what remains of it, to a form of self-mastery, which is in itself perverse, is not a benign performance however meritorious it may appear. In "Madame Bovary," Flaubert proved to himself and to the world that it is possible for a writer to identify so completely with a character as to lose sight of himself, an act that has about it an air of sorcery, of violence, necessitating an almost necromantic enactment that is not within the powers of humbler practitioners, who may merely lend their characters certain of their own traits and who may take their imaginings only up to the limits decreed by the outcome of their story.

Flaubert, what is more, achieves this by indirection, by encasing his story in a style so pure, so apparently simple, that his own immense efforts, practiced entirely on himself, are only known to us from other sources. This is where the heroism is apparent. The book, published in 1857, took him five years to write, years in which he refined each sentence over and over again, until no trace of his own temperament remained. If we did not know that he had vomited three times when describing Emma's suicide, we should still be able to appreciate the calm factual manner in which the details are given. Yet this act of vomiting, the most physically disruptive of phenomena, relays the intense love and hatred that Flaubert felt for the character and for the book that was to make him famous. Few writers can command such exhaustive excitement. For the undertaking, an undertaking which encompassed five years of 16-hour days, implies a terrifying commitment. And to translate this commitment into narrative involves an even more prodigious expenditure: to eliminate the author from his own work as completely as if he were nothing more than a mere bystander, an anonymous voice recounting an anonymous episode, so anodyne, so unconnected, that he picked it out of a newspaper, a simple fait divers that could be seen to have no reference to his own undramatic existence. The impartial, even genial style, the style from which Flaubert is absent, and from which he intended to be absent, represents an Olympian ideal in which the deity presides over his characters' fate but does nothing to intervene. The Jupiterian Flaubert therefore shares the divinity's lack of pity, of mercy. His only intervention is the simplicity of the account rendered. In achieving this, Flaubert encourages lesser writers to believe that they too possess such arcane powers. As much has been written about this process as about the book itself; even the vomiting seems prestigious.

The author--Flaubert himself--remains in abeyance. In the opening chapter he is present in the form of a boy at school who joins in the hilarity at Charles Bovary's clumsiness and at his inappropriate hat, a hat betraying the monstrous ineptitude that will distinguish Bovary's career as a village doctor. In fact Bovary is not a doctor at all, any more than Homais is a chemist. Bovary is an officer of health, a rank decreed by Napoleon, who made use of such half-trained practitioners on the battlefield. Having joined in the mirth that greeted Bovary's arrival in class, the narrator, temporarily thought to be present as Flaubert, then eclipses himself from the story, which follows the early career of Charles Bovary. This is done without elision, so that the handing over of the narrative is not noticed. The reader is quite naturally led into the character of Bovary and is able to follow his development without constraint. The author-subject has disappeared: Bovary holds center stage. From then on the story belongs to the characters, glimpsed as if at a distance, their actions all their own.

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